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Healthcare Heroes

Emerging Leader

Hospital Epidemiologist, Baystate Medical Center; Vice Chair for Clinical Affairs, Department of Medicine, Baystate Health

Dr. Sarah Haessler

Dr. Sarah Haessler

She ‘Stands on a Wall Between the Community and Infectious Diseases’

Dr. Sarah Haessler has already been honored as a Healthcare Hero. Actually, a ‘Healthcare Superhero,’ to be more precise.

That was the unofficial title bestowed upon 76 fully vaccinated healthcare workers from across New England who attended the Super Bowl last February as guests of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The group flew down on the Patriots’ team plane and got to see Tom Brady win his seventh Super Bowl — and promote vaccination while they were at it.

Haessler, hospital epidemiologist at Baystate Medical Center and vice chair for Clinical Affairs in the Department of Medicine at Baystate Health, was one of three from this region to be so honored; she was joined by Baystate colleague Stephen Boyle Sr., senior director of Hospitality; and Cherie Rodriguez, a respiratory therapist at Mercy Medical Center.

Haessler has many memories from that day, with only some of them involving the action on the field.

“It was the quintessential American experience,” she recalled, noting that healthcare workers from across the country were recognized at the game. “It was big. Everything about it was big. The music was loud, there were fireworks for everything, there were military flyovers, the jumbo screens had the president on them … America doesn’t do anything small. This was very big and very American.”

“Her role is to stand watch on the wall between our patients, our team members, our community, and the infectious agents that threaten their health. And she has successfully done this for more than a decade, not only in the face of a global pandemic the likes of which we have not experienced for more than 100 years, but every day of the year. Because in healthcare, those threats never cease.”

Haessler said pairs of tickets to the game were made available to various hospitals, and she was chosen by officials at Baystate to attend; she’s not sure how or why.

Matters are a little more clear when it comes to her being chosen as the winner in the intensely competitive Emerging Leader category for BusinessWest’s Healthcare Heroes awards. She has been chosen in large part for her many efforts to prepare those at Baystate for what was coming in early 2020 and for her ongoing work throughout the pandemic to plan, educate, and help carry out all the operations of a hospital during extraordinary circumstances. But there is certainly more to the story. Indeed, COVID-19 wasn’t her first experience with a highly infectious disease, and she acknowledged, with some resignation born from experience in her voice, that it won’t be her last.

Meanwhile, she has taken on more leadership roles over the years, serving as interim chief medical officer at Baystate Noble Hospital and currently sitting on the board of the Society of Healthcare Epidemiologists of America.

Her work in her chosen field, and her status as an emerging leader in Western Mass. and beyond, is best summed up by Dr. Andrew Artenstein, chief physician executive and chief academic officer, incident commander, COVID-19 Response, at Baystate Health, who nominated her for this honor.

“Her role is to stand watch on the wall between our patients, our team members, our community, and the infectious agents that threaten their health,” he wrote. “And she has successfully done this for more than a decade, not only in the face of a global pandemic the likes of which we have not experienced for more than 100 years, but every day of the year. Because in healthcare, those threats never cease.”

In a candid interview, Haessler talked about that harsh reality, her work at Baystate, her chosen career in epidemiology, and the many kinds of rewards that come with it.

 

At the Top of Her Game

When asked how she chose epidemiology as a specialty, Haessler started by saying that, during her residency at Dartmouth, she was interested — make that fascinated — by all aspects of medicine. It soon became clear to her that she needed to pick something broad that would cross all other specialties.

“When I sat down to pick one, I ultimately decided that the specialty where the cases that kept me up late or got me up early in the morning to learn more and read more and try to figure out what was wrong with this person — these puzzles — were the cases that were most interesting to me, and the most satisfying and challenging. And that was infectious disease,” she told BusinessWest.

Dr. Sarah Haessler was one of many ‘Healthcare Superheroes’

Dr. Sarah Haessler was one of many ‘Healthcare Superheroes’ in attendance at last February’s Super Bowl in Tampa.

“I’ve never looked back — I’ve always loved it,” she went on, adding that, in this field, she does get to interact with specialists of all kinds. “It’s been an interesting career — I’ve never been bored. And the other thing about it is that it just keeps moving. I’m a high-energy person — I keep moving — so it suits me very well.”

Things were certainly moving in the latter days of 2019, said Haessler, noting that the information coming to her from hospital epidemiologists in China, and later the state of Washington, made it clear that something ominous was on the horizon.

“We saw the pandemic potential for it because it was so swift and had created a huge influx of patients in those hospitals in Wuhan,” she recalled. “It essentially overwhelmed those hospitals immediately, and the fact that China’s approach was to put the area in lockdown … that is the kind of organism, like SARS, that causes a pandemic.”

She said Baystate was ready, in large part because it had gone through this before with other infectious diseases and had learned many valuable lessons. And she was at the forefront of these efforts.

“We had been through H1N1, and then we had been through the Ebola epidemic,” she explained. “And this really created an impetus, and a framework, across the United States for preparedness for the world’s most contagious diseases.”

Because of Ebola, Baystate had created a Special Pathogens Unit to manage extremely contagious patients, said Haessler, who manages this unit and the team that operates it. And as part of that team’s work, it created protocols and procedures for how it would manage patients, took steps to ensure that there would be adequate supplies of PPE, put in place scenarios for how patients would be cared for and where, determined if, when, and under what circumstances elective surgeries would be halted, and much more.

In short, as Artenstein noted in his nomination, Haessler was the point person for preparing the medical center for what everyone could see was coming.

“Her work provided great comfort to all, knowing that we had such an expert in such a key role,” he wrote. “Her team’s magnificent work in collaboration with employee health services led to the earliest possible recognition of infectious contacts and allowed us to limit the risks for patients and staff during a time of great uncertainty and fear.”

While the past tense is being used for most of these comments, the work battling COVID is obviously ongoing, said Haessler, adding that the Delta variant brings a new and very dangerous thread to this story.

When asked about what the past 18 months has been like, personally and professionally, she said, in essence, that it’s been the culmination of all her training and hard work.

“It’s been one of biggest events that I’ve had to participate in, and while it’s been challenging, it’s also been very gratifying, because Baystate has been an incredible organization, rising to the occasion in this. I’m so proud of Baystate; I’ve never been more proud to work at this organization and to be part of the leadership team.

“The responsiveness, the focus on what was important and what remains important, has been incredible,” she went on. “It’s been a laser focus on the safety of the healthcare workers, and protecting our patients and our healthcare workers from getting and passing this disease, getting the resources we needed to enable safe management of these patients, and staying really, really focused on what’s important here has been a phenomenal experience and an opportunity for tremendous personal and professional growth.”

 

Passing Thoughts

Returning to Raymond James Stadium and Super Bowl LV, Haessler said she had the opportunity to meet with healthcare workers from across the country who had been, at that time, battling with COVID for roughly a year.

“It was an opportunity to meet with other people, commiserate, and just be among kindred spirits — people had been through so much,” she said, adding that, seven months later, the fight continues, and in some ways, it has escalated.

In the future, there will be other fights against infectious diseases, she said, adding that the best hospitals and healthcare systems can do is try to be prepared, because, as Artenstein noted, these threats never cease.

That, in a nutshell, is what her career has been all about. Her ability to exceed in that role and many others has made her a Healthcare Hero — and a ‘superhero’ — as well as an emerging leader in Western Mass. and her chosen field.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — A respected healthcare professional with more than 30 years of clinical leadership, Frank Cracolici, has been named interim president of Baystate Medical Center. Meanwhile, Joanne Miller, who has more than 30 years of hospital-operations experience, has been named interim chief Nursing officer (CNO).

Cracolici has an extensive background in leading hospitals and most recently served as senior advisor to the CEO of Morton Hospital, a member facility within the Steward Health Care System, a $7 billion system comprised of 36 hospitals with more than 40,000 employees. He was responsible for the day-to-day operations for the 125-bed hospital located in Central Mass., which includes 440 physicians and 730 associates, an active Emergency Department with more than 45,000 visits per year, 5,500 inpatient discharges, and an operating budget of $125 million.

Previously, Cracolici was president and CEO of St. Vincent Medical Center, part of Verity Health System, in Los Angeles, where he was responsible for all strategy, hospital operations, and ambulatory services for the 366-bed hospital. He has also held leadership roles as executive vice president and chief operating officer, and then president and CEO, at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City, where he was responsible for the oversight of 1,000 inpatient beds and strategic planning for all clinical and operational departments of the dual campus hospital center and level 1 trauma center.

Cracolici is a Johnson & Johnson fellow from the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania and has a master of professional studies degree in health services administration and a bachelor’s degree in business and health services administration from the New School for Social Research in New York City. He earned his diploma of nursing at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center School of Nursing in Englewood, N.J.

For 19 years, Miller served as senior vice president, Patient Care Services; vice president, Surgical Services; chief Nursing officer, and interim CEO in both major academic health systems and community-based hospitals.

Most recently, she served as CNO/vice president at Carson Tahoe Health in Carson, Nev., and interim CEO/CNO at Jupiter Medical Center in Jupiter, Fla. She was also CNO/vice president, Patient Care Services at Johns Hopkins Medicine/Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. In this capacity, she led the development, implementation and evaluation of nursing-practice and patient-care standards across the acute-care hospital, ambulatory sites, and its skilled-nursing and assisted-living facilities. She held system nursing leadership roles to foster collaboration and promote peer learning to improve quality and the patient experience.

Miller holds a doctorate in executive nursing practice from Drexel University, a master’s degree in nursing administration from the University of Hartford, and a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Mount Saint Mary College. She is a Malcolm Baldridge executive fellow.

She is a strong champion for safety, quality, and patient and staff experience, and has a proven track record in value-based purchasing measurements. She also brings to Baystate her expertise in lean innovation and the Pathway to Excellence/Magnet journey.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — It’s a difficult decision to make, and there isn’t much time left. Should my son or daughter head off to college this fall with the coronavirus pandemic still prevalent in communities everywhere?

Some colleges will be offering online classes only, but others are welcoming freshmen and other students to a campus which should look much different than in the past, to protect the student body and staff.

One thing is for sure: college environments are high on social contacts, and large gatherings are prime for the spread of COVID-19. What precautions should be taken in classrooms, dorms, and dining halls at college? Dr. Armando Paez, chief of the Infectious Disease Division at Baystate Medical Center, answers these questions and more.

What questions should parents and students be asking their college about safety before returning to the classroom? It is important to ask your college about the policies and procedures they will implement to promote safe behaviors throughout the college environment, as well as their plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For example, you should ask about the college’s policies on students violating preventive measures, such as not wearing face coverings or practicing social distancing. Also, what are the guidelines for teachers and students when calling in sick for class, so that there is no fear of reprisal for not coming to class? How is the cafeteria set up to encourage physical distancing? What modifications have been made in the cleaning and disinfecting procedures of classrooms, toilets, and common places on campus?

What are the biggest risks for students heading off to college? The biggest risk is actually becoming infected with COVID-19 while at college, setting off an outbreak in the dormitories and at home and local communities when leaving campus. It is already known that young individuals can get infected, spread the virus, and they can also become severely ill from COVID-19. The risk increases significantly when students do not follow preventive measures, such as maintaining physical distancing.

What would you advise students about their social life at college? It is best at this time to avoid large gatherings, especially indoors, including bars. It is important to keep informed of new guidelines and recommendations from the college, state, and public-health organizations to protect you.

What considerations should there be if you are sharing a dorm room with someone? In light of what we know about COVID-19 transmission, the current dormitory setup will need to be modified for safety. Most dormitories will likely not be operating at full capacity, and single rooms may be available. However, for those sharing rooms, it is important to follow recommended preventive measures, including face coverings, frequent handwashing, and regular disinfection of shared spaces and commonly touched objects and surfaces. If the student or roommate feels sick, the dormitory administration should be notified immediately, and the protocol for isolation and COVID-19 testing, if suspected, should be followed.

What items should parents consider sending their children off to college with that they might not normally think of? Hand sanitizers and disinfectants approved or known to deactivate SARSCoV2, face coverings or masks, and a thermometer.

What about eating in the college dining hall? If eating in the college dining hall can be avoided, I would recommend you eat elsewhere, especially if necessary precautions have not been taken. Any congregation of individuals, such as in a dining hall, always poses a risk of COVID-19 transmission if just one individual is infected. However, most college dining halls, much like dormitories, likely will be modified in such a way that it will be reasonably safe for students to dine in with physical distancing at least six feet apart as much as possible. Other measures that should be adopted include limiting the number of individuals per table, assigning students specified times to come to the dining hall, use of disposable items, and more ‘grab-and-go’ options.

What would you advise a college student with comorbidities, such as diabetes or pulmonary problems, to do? If online learning is an option, this will be the best alternative for someone with comorbidities. If this is not an option, choose activities at the college that require little physical interaction or gathering. Also, avoid being near individuals who do not have face coverings. I cannot overemphasize strictly following preventive measures, such as frequent handwashing, physical distancing, face coverings, and more. If you feel sick or think you may have COVID-19, contact your healthcare provider within 24 hours and follow the school’s recommendations for those who think they might be sick with COVID-19.

Is living in a fraternity or sorority safe? Outbreaks of COVID-19 have been reported in fraternities and similar off-campus quarters. Similar to dormitories, these living quarters should have modifications, rules, and regulations to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Fraternity and sorority parties have been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks and should be avoided.

Can students safely participate in college sports? Yes, I think students can play sports safely following some guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website (cdc.gov) has posted guidelines for playing sports. A player who feels sick or believes they may have COVID-19 should not play and alert their coach. In addition to frequent handwashing, there should not be any sharing of equipment. Handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps are discouraged. The risk of contracting COVID-19 increases depending on the physical closeness of the sport and whether competitions involve teams from different geographic areas. Coaches and spectators should wear face coverings, and coaches must decide if players need to wear them.

Coronavirus

Getting Ready

The Emergency Department was rather quiet at Baystate Medical Center on Monday morning.

And Dr. Niels Rathlev, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine, attributed this to the fact that the public is listening to the governor and other elected officials and staying away from the ER unless they really need to be there.

But that relative quiet in the ER — one spokesperson for the hospital described it as “almost eerie” — is almost certain to be short-lived as the spread of COVID-19 continues in this region. And that eventuality was the inspiration for the construction of a rapid-response triage facility just outside the entrance to the ER.

Crews began work on the facility last Friday, and it is due to be completed by the beginning of next week, Rathlev told a group of reporters struggling to hear him over the sounds of the construction going on behind him. It is expected to hold roughly 35 to 40 chairs — each of them six feet apart — for individuals entering the ER.

“There’s community transmission of the virus at this point,” said Rathlev. “And we really are preparing for more patients showing up for screening. This is not to expand testing; the real issue is to try to keep patients that don’t require admission to the hospital — acute emergency care — and screen them rapidly out here.

“The next step is to really to develop protocols and figure out how we’re actually going to move patients through, as opposed to bringing them in through the building,” he went on.  “Right now, this [triage] is happening inside the building; if we have numbers of patients coming in that require screening, we need to do this somewhere else, and this is where that’s going to happen.”

Construction of the triage center is a step that mirrors what is happening in other parts of the country, Rathlev noted, adding that some areas, such as the state of Washington, established such facilities days or weeks ago in anticipation of a surge in visits to the ER and the critical need to triage those coming in. Those communities are sharing best practices, and Baystate will learn from them as they put this facility in operation, he added.

“If you look at trauma centers in Boston and Worcester, we’re all preparing for this,” he said. “Washington State and California are ahead of us for obvious reasons — they’ve had multiple, multiple cases — so they’re sharing protocols with us, and we’re sharing as well.”

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